Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What is the Purpose of Education?


 Recently, someone asked me to define “education”, something that most people take for granted. I think a good starting point would be to revisit the National Philosophy of Education (NPE).

Let me quote verbatim: “Education in Malaysia is a continuous effort towards enhancing potentials of individuals in a holistic and integrated manner in order to create individuals who are well-equipped intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. This effort aims to produce knowledgeable, ethical and responsible Malaysian citizens who are can contribute towards the harmony and prosperity of the community and nation.”

To me, what is not evident or obvious in our NPE, is the lack of emphasis on the SKILLS. Here’s my own definition of education…Education has multiple dimensions which boil down to imparting KNOWLEDGE, inculcating SKILLS, and instilling VALUES.

All the issues that we have been discussing on education/higher education actually revolved around these three dimensions (or elements). Any good curriculum design and delivery should be able to integrate these 3 elements, seamlessly and effectively. These 3 dimensions have been encapsulated very well, partly in our FPK and also in Shift 1 in our Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education) (MEB-HE).

All of the issues that we have been facing in our education system actually hinges on inter-related issues: the whole framework of education (on the macro level) and, on the micro level, the governance of the school/university, curriculum design, teachers, and delivery.

What about the meaning of education from Islamic Perspective? Well, based on the idea propounded by the eminent scholar, Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Islamic education emphasised on the principle that “pendidikan adalah proses internalisasi dan penanaman ADAB pada diri manusia”. To me, this is the VALUES dimension of a holistic education system. It makes sense, though, because we want our future nation builder to be not only highly competent (with sufficient knowledge and skills) but also well equipped with NILAI kemanusiaan (human values) dan kesejagatan (universality). Of course, education model cannot be a one size fits all. We are guilty for so long of assuming the monkey, fish and elephant to have the same ability to climb the tree!

The dimensions of learning can be developed and nurtured within the individual (KSV - Knowledge, Skills, Values (Adab)) and according to stages of human development and the diversity (as mentioned above). Again, we should keep in mind that the whole process of education is about giving a plethora of experience/ways/techniques/approaches that ultimately produce the balanced person, as propounded in Shift 1 of MEB-HE.

In any discussion on education, there always TWO issues: equity and accessibility. Here we are looking at the best, or appropriate model of delivery that would cater or accommodate different levels of learners, with diverse background, in terms of location, ethnicity, gender, level of income, etc.

In terms of equity, I think what we have formulated in the previous PSPTN and now the PPPM-PT, is very much in line with the recent Incheon Declaration, Education 2030, especially with respect to the SDG4 (SDG - Sustainable Development Goals) — “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. In its essence, SDG4 aims to eliminate all forms of exclusion and marginalization, disparities and inequalities in access, participation and learning outcomes.

Quote: “We commit with a sense of urgency to a single, renewed education agenda that is holistic, ambitious and aspirational, leaving no one behind.It is inspired by a humanistic vision of education and development based on human rights and dignity; social justice; inclusion; protection; cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity; and shared responsibility and accountability. We reaffirm that education is a public good, a fundamental human right and a basis for guaranteeing the realization of other rights. It is essential for peace, tolerance, human fulfilment and sustainable development. We recognize education as key to achieving full employment and poverty eradication. We will focus our efforts on access, equity and inclusion, quality and learning outcomes, within a lifelong learning approach”.

Read the book, “Excellence Without a Soul”, by Harry R. Lewis, the former Dean of Harvard College, that examines the state of America's universities and colleges with particular reference to Harvard. The essence is the author’s argument on how Harvard and other great US universities lost sight of the essential purpose of undergraduate education.

Can we deliver the quality education? YES, if we collectively are committed to the cause. The MEB-HE (and other MEB for schools) are the platforms from which we can launch the effort. What is QUALITY education in the first place?

According to the Incheon Declaration, “Quality education fosters creativity and knowledge and ensures the acquisition of the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy as well as analytical, problem-solving and other high-level cognitive, interpersonal and social skills. It also develops the skills, values and attitudes that enable citizens to lead healthy and fulfilled lives, make informed decisions, and respond to local and global challenges through education for sustainable development (ESD) and global citizenship education (GCED)". In order to achieve quality, it requires strengthening inputs, processes and evaluation of outcomes and mechanisms to measure progress, which have been crafted nicely in both MEBs. The MEBs will ensure that teachers and educators are empowered, adequately recruited, well-trained, professionally qualified, motivated and supported within well-resourced, efficient and effectively governed systems.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

"Rome was not built in a day"

The article above implied that MOOCs have failed to deliver its potential to educate the masses. Well, I won't be too quick to jump to a conclusion. Yes, I'm a strong advocate of MOOCs and online learning — as a student of MOOCs as well as a practitioner of online learning, and now helping the Ministry of Education with the Malaysia@MOOC. Let us view it this way: Rome was not built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour. I'm always reminded of this phrase. It takes time to achieve something great.

Actually, Rome was just the result of massive, persistent effort and lots of hard work. It was the outcome of a grand feat of strength and stamina — and intelligence. The bricks were the small units that made up the great structure. What about MOOCs? We are still laying the foundation -- still laying the bricks. Mistakes and failures are to be expected. The problem is, people (politicians, administrators, investors) are impatience—they want to see MOOCs as a game changer that could transform education overnight. There's no such thing as a silver bullet. MOOCs is not a magical solution to complicated issues we are facing now with our education.

Those passionate educators and lifelong learners who have benefited from MOOCs and other forms of online learning would understand and appreciate the value of technology and open education. Let's turn all the problems or issues raised by online learning into great opportunities. I guess there are still thousands of bricks to be laid — just persevere.

Reflection of My Journey in 2015

Everyone is reflecting...Me? Well, 2015 has been an interesting year. Interesting indeed!

I always enjoy being in the circle of academics and work together with them. They are all great people...some with their ego 😊. The academic world is always very exciting. Every day is different. There's no dull moment. No routine. We don't make much money like those people in the business world (but good if the government would revise our salary scheme hi hi). We pride ourselves to take on the responsibility to nurture the future nation builders. We are shaping the young mind that would become the potential leaders of the future.

A lot of people looking at Malaysian Higher Education and simply judging the quality of our university by the so-called world ranking. It's not that simple.

As for next year, well, the economy doesn't look very promising. Now academics have more things to think about, apart from teaching (I want to repeat, teaching, teaching, teaching), research, supervising undergraduates and postgraduates (and postdoc), publications, consultation, community....and now, generate income for the university! Plus administration, for those in the admin post.

For me, despite all the possible challenges and constraints, the year 2016 seems to be even more exciting. I hope to do more for USM in terms of academic development programmes. I hope to do more in my teaching. After 23 years teaching, I'm still learning to improve my teaching practice. There's so much more to learn. It's always a humbling experience when you see what other educators are doing in their teaching, thinking that you have done a lot but actually it's just the tip of the iceberg.

Teaching is always my number one priority...or is it? Hmmm...My students wrote in their feedback, "we would love to spend more face-to-face time with you". Oh yes, me too, my dearest students. I'll see how I can have more time...

Graduate students supervision is something that I need to improve. Being busy with admin and other things, sometimes I find it hard to switch on my 'research thinking' mode. Indeed, in this job you have to be able to switch roles effortlessly. But it's not easy. You have only so much energy, so much time. To my graduate students, I owe you apologies for my shortcoming.

I realize that I now becoming more of an educational administrator than a true food technologist. This is something I need to find a balance. I'm now involved more and more with the Ministry of Higher Education especially in the Malaysia Blueprint for Higher Education (2015-2025), and also with AKEPT. It's exciting to be involved at this level because I can see the big picture and can help USM to position itself in the bigger context.

Next year is exciting because I will team up with passionate educators from other places to embark or undertake a few 'mega' projects. They are young academics who are very passionate and energetic. We share the same passion, the same vision -- that is, to deliver excellence in higher education. We don't want to just talk, but we want to walk the talk. We want to showcase what is possible beyond the classroom. We want to demonstrate what we can achieve by stepping out from our comfort zone.

Research? Well, I like to think that I'm DOING research, not particularly world class research, though. That's my honest assessment. Apart from a string of research papers in Tier 1, the impact maybe minuscule. I may have contributed in a small way for the local sagu (sago) industry, but it's nothing significant to shout about. Yes, I received the Malaysia's Rising Star Award from the Ministry of Higher Education for my publications. In terms of the corpus of knowledge in my subject area, I may have contributed something to the body of knowledge.

Looking for new research ideas requires one to spend a lot of time reading and studying the literature. I used to spend much of my day reading the literature. Did I just say 'used to'?. Hmmm...I must confess now actually I read more about education and higher education. This is another area I need to strike a balance

I want to write more, technical and non-technical. I love to write. Should I say I will try to write more? Hmmm... Master Yoda says, "Do, or do not, there is no try'. Ok master Yoda, I will do. Promise!

Something for sure, I will give my inaugural professorial talk on the 5th of February 2016. "Give your talk, you must", Yoda whispered to me 😁 Yes, I must because it's been long overdue. I got my professorship in 2007! My son just told me, abah, you must read this book, "7 Habits of Effective People". I laughed. I said, I have those 7 habits, plus 3, that make it 10. But I have ONE bad habit that almost nullify the 10 good habits —PROCRASTINATION!! Aarrghhh...."Kill this bad habit, YOU MUST!!" Yes, oblige Master Yoda.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

MOOC for Credit?

Change is inevitable.

The Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) has mandated The Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) to implement the 'MOOCs plus credit recognition and transfer' initiative, which would enable all MOOCs courses from Malaysia and other platforms such as Coursera, Edx, Canvas, etc, to be registered into the Malaysia's MOOC platform and be given credit (MOOCs is the acronym for Massive Open Online Courses).

The question is, are we ready? Yes, and No.
As someone involved directly on the ground, helping to lead the Malaysia MOOC initiative for the 20 Malaysian public universities , I can see the challenges ahead, but as Anthony Robin said, “The only impossible journey is the one you never begin”.

MOOC is a big thing. I believe it is a game changer. Twenty two of the top 25 US universities in US News World Report rankings are now offering courses online for free.

In 2014, the so-called Big 3 MOOC providers, Coursera, Udacity, and edX, introducing their own credentials. Later Udacity announced its Nanodegree program, billed as “Industry credentials for today’s jobs in tech”. Last year, The University of Illinois College of Business launched an online-only iMBA program which cost one-third as much as a master’s degree from an institution of similar stature.

In October last year, MIT announced a pilot program allowing learners worldwide to take a semester’s worth of courses in its top-ranked, one-year Supply Chain Management (SCM) master’s program completely online, then complete an MIT master’s degree by spending a single semester on campus.

All these development are made possible because of the advent of ICT but more important than that is the willingness of the academic leaders at those institutions to reimagine higher education — reimagine the educational model and the processes - admission, curriculum, delivery, assessment, business model etc.

The initiative of ‘MOOC for credit’ announced by the MOHE is actually well beyond even what those institutions in the US have done. It is very bold! MOHE has already leading the way with the unique model of Malaysia MOOC — unique in the sense that it is a national agenda involving all the 20 public universities in Malaysia. It is indeed one of its kind and has become the talking points especially in this part of the world.

Creating a MOOC is actually a huge undertaking and require enormous investment of time, energy and money. Only those people involved directly (course developers and MOOC managers) can appreciate the hard work. For example, Ohio State Assistant Math Professor Jim Fowler has spent more than 1000+ hours developing his Calculus course on Coursera. Indeed, developing an online course is not for the faint hearted.

MOOC actually provides a cursory snapshot of what a university can offer in terms of quality education. Done properly, it can showcase and highlight the strength of the institutions. Therefore, any university embarking on MOOC project must be ready to put in some investment to ensure the courses are developed to the highest standard. For example, Harvard has in-house course production studio with over 50 staff, including specialists in instructional design, production, research, technical operations, and program support.

MOOC for credit requires a change in mindset and paradigm — reimagining higher education. To me, it’s almost UNBUNDLING the system as we know it and familiar with.

Enough for now…to be continued.

Comments from fellow educators are most welcome.

On Graduate Employability

There has been an intense discussion in many higher education forums and social media revolving around the issue of re-examining and re-thinking our future direction, as far as undergraduate programme and employability are concerned. Graduate employability is always taken as a good measure to show the ‘quality’ of education and reflect the reputation of the educational institution. Is it true?

Yes, it is important and relevant but to me, that's not THE ONLY reason for the existent of a university. In addition to the issue of graduate employability, there are deeper questions that do not often get addressed in public dialogue about higher education: What is the purpose of higher education today and for the future? What do we want to achieve for all the young talent we are nurturing? Or are we (educators) really nurturing them in a true sense of providing wholesome and holistic education? These questions challenge us to re-imagine the role of university and educators (lecturers) beyond that of graduate employability.

I don't know whether you would agree with me that our curriculum has been designed to FOCUS ON CONTENT. Yes, content (subject matter) is important and the curriculum should have adequate breadth and depth. This is to ensure we produce competent graduates in their respective discipline — as Food Technologist, Pharmacist, medical doctors, engineer, teacher, economist, etc. When they go out to the job market, they are probably ready to serve the relevant industry IF, and ONLY IF the prospective employers are looking ONLY for competent ‘worker’ that know their stuff — nothing else.

Unfortunately, the scenario in the marketplace has dramatically changed and is still changing rapidly. Employers are looking for multi-talented, multi-skills knowledge worker. Employers are looking for a person equipped with the so-called 21st-century skills (innovative, creative, good social and communicative skills, flexible, adaptable, independent, cross-cultural, ethical competence, forward-looking, versatile, fast learners), plus, of course, knowledge and competency on the subject matter. These are the skills that need to be EMBEDDED in the curriculum design and INCULCATED in the students through proper delivery at the course level. In other words, when we talk about graduate employability, we talk about the employability of our graduates for jobs that do not even exist tomorrow!

Now, ask ourselves and think whether our curriculum and delivery have been designed to produce knowledge human capital (I don't want to use the term 'knowledge worker'). According to Alvin Toffler, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”. In this regard, the curriculum should be designed in such a manner that our graduates are equipped with various learning and thinking skills to make them more VERSATILE, FLEXIBLE, RESOURCEFUL, and ADAPTABLE. When our graduates possess these skills then they will be able to learn new skills and adapt readily to the new environment. I cannot emphasize more the need that the innovative teaching approaches be integrated with appropriate student-centered learning environment so that the skill of "learn how to learn" can be imparted more effectively. Cognitive research on learning suggests that "how people learn is more important than what people learn in the achievement of successful learning".

I believe that THE KEY is the curriculum and the catalyst is the lecturers (educators). We should change our mindset that our role is not only to TEACH but to nurture our students to become lifelong learners.

The next question is, how do we incorporate lifelong learning model into our existing educational framework? It is obvious that our educational systems can no longer emphasise task-specific skills but must focus instead on developing learners' decision-making and problem-solving skills and teaching them how to learn on their own and with others. Achieving these goals requires a fundamental change in the way learning takes place and the relationship between learner and teacher. Our graduates need to be equipped with the essential skills and competencies they need to succeed in knowledge economy era. These skills include mastery of technical, interpersonal, and methodological skills. Technical skills include literacy, foreign language, math, science, problem-solving, and analytical skills. Interpersonal skills include teamwork, leadership, and communication skills. Methodological skills include the ability to learn on one's own, to pursue lifelong learning, and to cope with risk and change.

The bottom line is, we need to develop a deep understanding of a new learning culture and, therefore, create a new shift in paradigm.

"A Smooth Sea Never Made a Skilled Sailor"


When I came back and joined Universiti Sains Malaysia (Food Technology Division, School of Industrial Technology) in 1994, I was asked to teach the laboratory class. I took over and changed some of the experiments (and the manual). I spent most of the time in the laboratory, observing and helping with the hands-on. It was an enriching and valuable experience for me in building my career as an academic.

Many new lecturers asked me what to do if they are asked to teach courses that they don't like or they don't have expertise. My standard advice always 'take it, grab it, don't complaint'. It's part of the learning curve. What do you expect — smooth sailing? "A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor". To me, as an academic, it's important to get a broad-based knowledge and at the same time specialize in a few subjects (maybe a bit later). So, it's a kind of "Jack of many trades and a master of ONE". Holistic, maybe?